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Theatre in Review: Cool Hand Luke (Godlight Theatre Company/59E59)

Lawrence Jansen. Photo: Jason Woodruff

The talented people at Godlight Theatre Company don't merely adapt novels to the stage; they take a book, boil it down to its essence, and reimagine it in strikingly theatrical terms. There's nothing fussy or overly literary about this approach; I'm still marveling at how, armed with a text, seven actors, and a couple of design elements, James Dickey's Deliverance was transmuted into 90 minutes of nerve-shredding suspense. Watching the company at work, it's easy to think, why doesn't everyone try it? Clearly, it is harder than it looks, for nobody else is doing it.

Part of the company's genius lies in its offbeat choices. The idea of a chamber theatre edition of Deliverance seemed ludicrous on the face of it, which made the overall achievement that much more impressive. This time around, the choice is Cool Hand Luke, taken from Donn Pearce's novel, which is probably best known as a 1967 film starring Paul Newman. (He and George Kennedy took home Oscars for their performances.) But theatregoers who are familiar with the film, with its strongly satirical slant, are in for something of a shock; working with Emma Reeves' adaptation of the novel, the director, Joe Tantalo, and his team have fashioned a savage tale of one man pitted against a brutal prison system that functions as a form of institutionalized slavery.

Constructed as a series of brief scenes separated by the locked-and-loaded sound cues devised by Ien Denio, Cool Hand Luke is almost an abstract of Pearce's novel. In Tantalo's brilliantly stylized staging, two images reoccur: In one, the title character stands at stage center, with characters from his past arranged in columns, commenting on his misdeeds, sometimes talking all at once; in the other, we see Luke in a row of prisoners, performing some backbreaking task or other, while upstage, Boss Godfrey, the prison supervisor, stands, his faced obscured by hat and sunglasses, and his two lieutenants standing on either side. In Maruti Evans' production design, lighting becomes the scenery, informing these and other tableaux with stunning compositions of muscular, tungsten-colored beams. Using floor units and box-boom positions, plus a row of striplights on the upstage wall for powerful blinder cues, Evans creates a series of stark, single- or dual-source looks that effectively transform the stage into one of the lower circles of hell. His work is perfectly in sync with the text's portrait of prison life; anyone looking for sentimental Shawshank Redemption clich├ęs has wandered into the wrong theatre.

Luke Jackson is a war veteran turned plumber who ends up in a Florida prison farm for assault and battery on a number of municipal parking meters. Compared to some of his fellow inmates, who are looking at years of incarceration (if they are to be released at all), Luke's two-year sentence is pretty small potatoes. The smart money says he should keep his head down and stay out of trouble. For Luke, however, conformity isn't in the cards. His soul scarred by the preacher father who abandoned him and his pious mother, his worldview turned nihilistic by the charnel house of World War II, he has no use for authority figures of any kind. Worse, his dyed-in-the-wool insolence naturally attracts the attention of whoever is in charge. After one look, Boss Godfrey drawls in typically slow, sinister fashion, "Ah think you need to git your mind right."

Luke wastes no time in establishing himself as the in-house rebel, taking part in an outrageous bet that requires him to devour 50 eggs in a single sitting, and initiating a series of escape attempts that puts him in ever-deeper trouble. In his rejection of conventional values -- the prison bosses, specialists in cruelty that they are, are scandalized by his contempt for Christianity -- he is an existentialist hero, taking action because action keeps him alive, lunging instinctively for freedom without pondering what to do with it. He quickly becomes an object of fascination -- even veneration -- among the other prisoners, but, again, Pearce blasts away at any notion of Luke as hero. Brought back after his third escape attempt, he refuses to sugarcoat for the others the details of his brief sojourn in New Orleans; instead, he recounts how his workaday life was brightened only by a romance that went sour, causing to him go off on the self-destructive binge that landed him back in jail. For Luke, freedom proves to be only marginally more satisfying than life under Boss Godfrey's boot; it's the act of escape that matters.

This relentlessly bleak scenario is one reason why Cool Hand Luke proves less successful than Deliverance. Another is the absence of suspense; for all of Luke's acts of rebellion, he is tilting helplessly at a power structure that regards him as little more than a bug to be squashed. Also, Reeves' script, for all its serrated-edge sentences and tense confrontations, is weak on characterization. Luke is less a person than a guided missile, seeking liberation at any price. Boss Godfrey is little more than an icon of institutional oppression, a living statue of The Man in all his self-satisfaction. Similarly, the other prisoners function more as a Greek chorus, existing to comment on Luke's schemes.

Still, Lawrence Jansen's Luke, with his barely contained smirk and transparently false courtly manner, is the kind of guy who can stir up a mess of trouble without breaking a sweat. Similarly, I wouldn't want to encounter Nick Paglino's Boss Godfrey in a dark alley. Kristina Doelling is touching as Luke's sorrowful mother, whose death triggers a profound reaction in him, and Julia Torres has an effective bit as a woman who helps Luke on the run.

Also, Denio's sound design provides some truly upsetting gunshot effects, along with solid reinforcement for the music by Danny Blackburn and Bryce Hodgson. Orli Nativ's costumes contrast the filthy, sweat-stained prisoners' outfits with the women's neat-as-a-pin day dresses and Boss Godfrey's menacing uniform. Rick Sordelet's fight choreography adds another level of gritty realism to the proceedings.

If Cool Hand Luke is a tougher, less accessible experience than Deliverance, it's easy to admire the enormous precision and discipline with which the members of Godlight go about their business. This is the rare theatre company that contributes something indisputably unique to the New York theatre scene. -- David Barbour

(7 May 2015)

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